Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biyaheng Lupa (2009)

Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009)
English Title: Soliloquy

Other than Lav Diaz, whose Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) has become a beacon of artistic integrity and independence in the midst of a failing mainstream cinema (its running length of 5 hours makes it a chore to watch for an audience who have been fed with Hollywood films and their local variations; its powerful themes make it even more difficult for an audience who have been trained to view cinema as a tool for escape), Armando Lao can arguably be referred as one of the figureheads of the current Philippine cinema. Understanding the budgetary limitations of filmmaking in the country (a lesson painfully learned while shooting Jeffrey Jeturian's Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), which required more money the producer was not able to recover), he devised a screenwriting manual called "real-time" that allowed several filmmakers to make films from the use of available technology and very meager resources. Probably the most famous of these "real-time" practitioners is Brillante Mendoza whose Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), both of which were written by Lao, competed in Cannes, the latter earning Mendoza a Best Director prize from the prestigious film festival. Other "real-time" directors include Jim Libiran (Tribu (2007)), Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005)), Francis Xavier Pasion (Jay (2008)) and Ralston Jover (Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers, 2009) and writer of Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007) and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)). Lao, however, is more than just a screenwriter as his scripts are written with directorial vision. Instead of merely constructing the narrative and characters and leaving the rest of the creative process to the director, Lao immerses into the entire filmmaking process, stamping each and every one of the films which he had a part in with auteurial integrity.

Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy) is the first film where Lao attaches his name as director. The conceit is fascinating: passengers of a bus en route from Manila to Legazpi City are exposed through their thoughts, magically vocalized whenever the door closes turning the bus into a space that is insulated from the rest of the world. Despite the liberties Lao made with reality, he maintains an accurate grasp of the process of bus travel: the noticeable eccentricities of each and every stranger you are forced to breathe the same enclosed air with, the momentary connections made through shared glances, baseless annoyances with each other and the isolated idle chatter, the torturous passing of empty time, and the occasional roadblocks like a sudden flat tire or an unavoidable checkpoint. This deliberate attention to detail that encompasses not only the tangible elements but also the mood of the milieu has always been a trait of all of Lao's filmed scripts. The vast gap between the poor and the middle class in Jeturian's Pila-balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999), the underhanded exploitation of cinema in Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), the transitory romances of the tourism industry in Minsan Pa, and the coinciding physical deterioration of a family-run movie theater and the moral depletion of the family running it in Serbis, these pervading concepts are adeptly translated into the screenplay, and eventually into the films, through the seemingly impertinent details and textures in the narrative that actually add more than color but thematic integrity to the filmed stories.

The conceit of immediately hearing the thoughts of the passengers of the Legazpi-bound bus is definitely fascinating. What starts out as merely an intriguing novelty transforms into an existential reference to the various characters, as their vocalized thoughts become the only vehicles for these characters to actually prevail in the world during that bus ride. Without the conceit, these passengers are completely deprived of a reason to exist within the narrative framework. It nearly feels like these characters are pleading to persist and matter in the world through Lao's graciousness to grant their hidden thoughts perpetuity through recorded sound. That even the deaf-mute character's thoughts partake the form of his voiceless means of communication; the fact that their thoughts are presented via the characters' own method of communication, complete with speech mannerisms and intonations, is a signifier that the aural manifestations of is much more than an ingenious writer's device but serves as the characters existence in the film. As their stories manifest through memories from the past and current contemplation, their histories and possible futures slowly unfold only to be abruptly terminated by the same conceit that gave them their existence.

The inevitable consequence of mounting a film that tells the stories of various characters who are only related to each other by circumstance is the inequity of quality or substance, which is of course, all a matter of taste. For example, for those who enjoy heavy-handed melodrama, the storyline of the deaf-mute (Carlo Guevarra) who escapes from his adoptive home to visit the grave of his real mother might prove to be emotionally resonant; I thought the character's storyline was superfluous and overextended. For those who require their stories spelled out in black and white, the storyline of the dissatisfied wife (Shamaine Buencamino) who takes her chances at a variety show only to end up with her fate unchanged might seem to have a difficultly ambiguous ending; I thought the scene where she alights from the bus, with all her thoughts suddenly silenced, and meets up with her husband, who she just mentally maligned, and walks home, with Lao's camera nervously lingering with the deafening silence, is one of the film's most powerful sequences. For those who are partial against preachy cinema, the vocalized thoughts of a retired court interpreter (Jose Almojuela) about the as he reaches his destination might be considered a distraction to the seamless flow of the film; I thought it was a moving juncture, one that is not only revelatory to one of the film's most guarded characters but also preparatory to the film's conclusion.

A concrete bridge, lighted and shot to maximize a sense of foreboding, breaks the comfort of formula. By film's end, we have become so accustomed to the cacophony of loud thoughts when the bus door closes and the unnerving silence when it opens that the phantasmagoric image of the bridge and the bus slowly entering the frame jars the film's staggered logic. The suddenness of the shift in aesthetic and mood allows for the unexpected termination of the remaining passengers' stories; the bus fell down a cliff, killing all of its passengers and consequently, all of their stories. It seems and probably is the easy way out for Lao's film, since the conceit has turned into a redundancy and therefore a liability, and the abundance of stories has resulted to predictability. Yet, it is also very understandable because Lao is after all, the writer, and as writer, he is god to the lives he chose to make stories out of, and just the same as the passengers who have alighted the bus and whose stories are no longer within the perspective of the film, everything must have an end. That is simply the nature of cinema. It is limited by the bounds of storytelling, and a good filmmaker, whether he is a writer, a director, or both, must make most of what exists within such bounds. With Biyaheng Lupa, Lao continues to prove to be a very good filmmaker.


Anonymous said...

where did you watch this?

Oggs Cruz said...


I caught this during its run in the Cinemanila International Film Festival.

Anonymous said...

argh! i hate that you didn't warn your readers about the spoilers in this review. and i hate the fact that i wasn't able to finish viewing the film before reading this. but being a fan of your site, it's kinda hard staying away from reading your reviews.

i had the opportunity to watch half of the film via a screener submitted to a festival, but wasn't able to finish the film since the screeners had to be shipped asap. but i really found the film very intriguing. i really loved the premise/concept. that's why i had to read this review. unfortunately, i was too busy to catch the rest of the film in cinemanila. and the location was just too friggin far for me.

i had a few sessions in scriptwriting in mowel years before under bing lao, and it was soooo hard! he's really for advanced writers. jun lana was a classmate of mine and i remember, even he had a problem shifting to lao's paradigm in scriptwriting. haay, idol ko pa rin si bing lao kahet na sinira na niya mga pangarap kong maging writer.

anyway, loved this review despite the spoilers. :)

- anna

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks and I apologize for the spoilers. I never liked putting up spoiler warnings because my takes on film are really meant for people who have seen the film instead of those who are deciding whether or not to see a film. Hehe. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I find it funny how people react to social pressure and/or pre-conceived ideas. Bias truly rules.

Just because the movie is made by Armando Lao - one of the most prominent writers in our society - doesn't mean this movie is any good.

One word sums up this movie - BORING.

As great as the premise was - it is more fitting to put into a short film that it is to have you sit in a theatre for two hours watching people ride in a bus doing absolutely nothing.

Was the story even worth telling?

Does it make any impact on my life?

My question would be: if this movie was made by someone else would people have still reacted the same way?

To that my answer would be no.

Film is a visual medium - and there is nothing visual about this film.

I love Bing and I had taken his classes before.

But please don't be a hypocrite. Tell it as it is.

It is a great idea for a short film but not for a feature film.

It's absolutely boring.

Truth may suck and hurt but will improve him.

Anonymous said...

Tao talaga magcocomment ng negative anonymous naman!!!

Have some balls man.

oo nga pala anonymous din ako hehe

Edgar Allan Paule said...

To Anonymous (the first one):

Film is an audiovisual medium. Don't discount cinema's literary and aural qualities. As much as it it something to be seen, film is also something to be listened to and understood. As much as it is about visuals and graphics, it is also about storytelling.

Hypothetical arguments (ie, "if this movie was made by someone else...") are just that, hypothetical, and it is up to you to prove them. (Did the bus passengers really do nothing? Or maybe they just didn't do something visually grand/spectacular/explosive, as you seem to expect from a film?)

Perhaps if you really want to help the filmmaker, criticize the film on your own. Write an article, make your argument, expound on them and let us read it. Instead of scoffing at the film in sporadic, anonymous comments.

dodo dayao said...

2010 na. Ibig sabihin 2010 na taon na umiiral ang ideya - - ideya ba o katotohanan - - -na kanya kanya tayong pananaw. Ang opinyon ng isang tao sa ibang bagay ay maaring magkaiba sa opinyon nung katabi niya.

Napaka-basic, di ba? Kahit Grade 5 maiintindihan.

Para kang hindi nasarapan sa McDonald's pero pumuputok ang butsi mo dahil ang daming taong kumakain doon at nasarapan. At tinawag mo silang mga hipokrito at pinagbintangang nagkunkunwari lang silang nasarapan.

At nung nakuha mong magreklmo, nagsuot ka ng maskara para hindi ka makilala. At nung napuna ka, bigla kang nawala at hindi na nagpakitang muli.


Yan ang paninindigan.

digitalburyong said...

Ikaw Anonymous noong 3:48 pm. Bumagsak ka siguro sa klase niya no? O pumasa ka man, pero hindi mo natutunan yung mas mahalagang bagay sa scriptwriting? Ewan ko lang. Mas ipokrito siguro kung magkokomento ka tapos hindi mo naman susuportahan nang mabuti. Tipong, ay, pangit, pero sana di na lang ako nagkomento kasi nagmaganda lang ako. At kung hindi ko nagustuhan yung pelikula, hindi kaya...- - hindi kaya lang ah, hindi ko lang sure, hindi ko lang talaga sure, baka 1% sureness lang- - ako ang may pagkukulang? subukan nating itanong sarili, kahit once in a blue moon lang.

Anonymous said...

haven't seen the film but i disagree if this is a novel idea (of a story being told inside a moving bus.) years back (2007 yata) i saw a play being exhibited in PETA that the entire story happened inside a bus travelling in Manila while characters reveal their thoughts and situations.